Is Timor aid being stolen?

According to Timorese refugees just arriving here, the Indonesian authorities are embezzling part of the international aid currently being channeled to starvation-struck East Timor.

The refugees allege that Indonesian officials are keeping some of the donated food and medical supplies back and then distributing them to local shopkeepers. The aid is, in turn, sold at hugely inflated prices rather than given to the population, they say.

These charges are difficult if not impossible to substantiate. But they appear to corroborate the views expressed by representatives of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) at last month's congressional hearing on East Timor. The ADA representatives contented that, given Indonesia's past record in Timor, there was a need for increased monitoring by outside observers of the distribution of foreign relief.

The United States so far has contributed approximately $1.8 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross relief efforts and $6.9 million in funds and commodities to the Catholic Relief Services. CRS has requested an additional $5 million from the US to be spread over a three-year period.

"We appeal to anyone left in the world with a minimum sense of human rights to insure that relief goes directly to our people," said S., a refugee who insisted on remaining nameless for fear of reprisals against his family. He arrived here on Jan. 8 along with four other men and one woman, the latest group to have braved a long, costly, and seemingly dangerous trail.

Since the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, more than 2,000 Timorese have arrived in Portugal. Most of them, like S., are housed in a squalid camp a few miles from Lisbon belonging to the Portuguese Red Cross.

S. managed to escape from Dili, the main town on East Timor, late last year after paying 80,0000 Indonesian rupiahs ($129) for a visa and the air ticket to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. In Jakarta he paid a further 1,200,000 rupiahs ($1,935) for necessary papers and an air fare to Lisbon through Singapore.

He left Jakarta on a temporary tourist visa although he arrived in Singapore with a smuggled Portuguese passport he had bought for 6,000 rupiahs ($9.67) from the Dutch Embassy in the Indonesian capital. (The Dutch have been carrying out consular activities for the Portuguese even since Portugal broke off diplomatic relations with Indonesia in 1975.

S. calculated that half of the total 1,286,000 rupiahs ($2,074) he had paid went in under- the-table bribes to Indonesian officials. "There is no other way to get out," he said. S. confirmed that a family reunion program agreed to more than a year ago by the Australian and Indonesian governments to facilitate the emigration from Timor of at least 600 people had fizzled completely -- without a word of protest from either side.

To his knowledge no more than 100 Timorese had left because of the program.S. believed that none of his fellow countrymen had attempted leaving by boat. Shipping to and from East Timor is now closely controlled by the Indonesian authorities.

This is not the only way that officials are making things difficult.Increasingly, tickets and visas are being distributed to Timorese judged to be politicaly safe, in other words, those who would not talk to the press.

But is every Timorese trying to get out?

"If every Timorese who wanted to leave was allowed to go, only to stones would be left," said S.

The authorities, clearly fearing the consequences of a mass exodus, are clamping down even on loopholes.

Refugees insist that starvation still exists in many parts of East Timor and that fighting between the Indonesian military and Fretelin, the Timorese liberation movement, was still continuing in the mountains to the east of the island.

The refugees underlined the manipulative skills of the local authorities when it came to visits by Western journalists. Embarrassing witnesses were temporarily removed during the period of the visit, while those who remained were too frightened to talk.

Clearly the months ahead will see growing demands to what is really going on in Timor.

Recent events here indicate that one of the major initiatives in this respect may come from the Portuguese, who are already demonstrating feelings of collective guilt about their former colony.

Portuguese President Antonio Ramalho Eanes has handed Portugal's military watchdog, the Council of the Revolution, a lengthy dossier on Timor that is believed to recommend an immediate diplomatic offensive to secure a just future for the local population.

The President is obliged by his country's Constitution to bring East Timor to independence. Also this week Portugal's new center- right government announced that the question of Timor would become one of its major foreign policy involvements over the next few monts. According to government sources the aim is to solve what is increasingly becoming a burdensome refugee problem here.

Because the Timorese currently living here possess Portuguese passports, no international organization bears responsibility for them. The cost of their upkeep and organization thus falls on an already stretched Portuguese state.

The US, like Portugal, is another country that recently has begun to demonstrate signs of collective guilt. The Indonesians used US weapons and relied on US diplomatic support for the invasion of East Timor in 1975. Successive US administrations have considered Indonesia important because of its status as a staunchly anti-communist and oil- producing nation.

The state Department until recently looked like being as wrong about East Timor as about Iran (significantly Indonesia is nominally as Islamic nation), although East Timor specialists believe that attitudes are at last beginning to change.

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